Place Category: Parks and Playgrounds
This playground is named for Willets Point, a peninsula located to the northeast of the park. Due to its strategic position at the approaches to the East River via the Hell Gate, the point eventually became the site of Fort Totten. In the 18th century, the 150 acre peninsula was known as Thorne’s Neck, after its owner, Jacob Thorne. In 1829, Charles Willets, one of the first nurserymen in the vicinity of Flushing, acquired the land, giving his last name to the peninsula. The Willets name is listed in Queens and Nassau county records as far back as the mid-17th century. In 1643, a Richard Willets is recorded to have settled at the English enclave of “Hempsteede” (Hempstead), Long Island, then still under Dutch rule. He was cousin of Captain Thomas Willett (1610-1674), leader of the English forces that seized New Amsterdam in 1664. That same year Captain Willett was named the first English mayor of the recently renamed “New York.” The spelling of the Willets name was not standardized at that time, allowing for many variants.
The federal government purchased property at Willets Point in 1857, after prompting in Congress to build a compliment fort opposite of Fort Schuyler in the Bronx. The land for the fort was acquired in two parcels, the first being a purchase of 110 acres from George and Robertina Irving for the sum of $200,000 on May 16, 1857. Henry Day sold the second parcel of 26.35 acres to the federal government on April 14, 1863 for $57,000. The only structures on Willets Point at that time were a tavern farmhouse, a two-family summer house facing the water, and a stable standing close to a salt marsh that once nearly separated the point from the mainland.
With the coming of the Civil War in 1861, construction plans were stalled and Willets Point was used as a staging area (training grounds) for federal troops before their transportation to the front. On May 1, 1861 the point was designated Camp Morgan after Governor Edwin D. Morgan (1811-1883) of New York. As the war intensified, interest was renewed in building permanent fortifications at Willets Point and work began in haste in 1862. The fort was planned to be a massive masonry structure of multiple tiers housing advanced gun emplacements designed to cover the entire approach to the Hell Gate. Work was considerably scaled back with the end of the Civil War in 1865.
The conflict saw many technological advances in warfare, two of which posed the demise of the great coastal forts, such as the planned Willets Point fortifications. Pointed shells had been introduced, fired from innovative “rifled” heavy guns with spiraled grooves in their barrels to give spin to the shells. This type of projectile proved to deeply penetrate the exposed walls of a fortress quickly due to the speed created by the rifled guns, rendering massive forts useless. A scaled down coastal battery at Willets Point was completed by 1869, and the site was chosen to be a major storage depot for the Army Corps of Engineers. President William McKinley (1843-1901) renamed the fort in 1898 to honor Brigadier General Joseph G. Totten (1838-1864), Director of the Bureau of Seacoast Defense and Chief of the Army Corps of Engineers from 1838 until his death in 1864.
Willets Point Playground, situated at 166th Street between 16th Avenue and 16th Road, is located in the Queens neighborhood of Whitestone. It is jointly operated by Parks and the Board of Education, and opened in 1958 for public recreation and use by Clearview Gardens School (PS 209). Council Member Michael Abel sponsored a $1 million renovation of the playground, which was completed in July 2001. Colorful modular play equipment with safety surfacing highlighted the reconstruction, along with the installation of a decorative spray shower with an automatic timer, tot swings and benches. The basketball courts, handball wall, and large asphalt play area were refurbished. The playground, surrounded by chain link and wrought iron fencing, now features two life size metal giraffes, which stand at the gate between the play equipment and basketball court, welcoming people into the play area.
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